Tag Archives: Tale

Where to Begin your Tale

Starting your tale

Lighting up your tale

How should your tale start? With a cymbal crash to grab the reader’s or audience’s attention? Or with a gradual build-up to draw them deeper into the world of the characters?

There are many successful examples of both sorts of starts – Lord of the Rings, Speed. In his book Film Scriptwriting, A Practical Manual, Dwight V Swain calls finding the right moment to begin the story, the point of attack.

Interrogate your Tale

Swain suggests that in order to determine this optimal point in our tale we should ask ourselves the questions: What is our genre? Are we writing for impact, characterisation, or atmosphere? Only when we know the answer to those questions can we know what note to strike in our opening.

In The Grudge, a horror film, we are presented with a man standing with his back to us on the balcony of an apartment block several stories up. A woman, whom we presume to be his wife or lover, lies in bed, regarding him placidly. The man seems somber, pained, but calm. Suddenly, we see him tip himself over the railings and fall to the ground, killing himself.

The effect is one of shock, followed by intrigue and a series of questions: Why did the man commit suicide? What did the dark expression on his face mean? Why did the woman not see it coming? These questions demand answers and pull us into the story.

While the rest of the movie provides, a little at a time, the answers, the start poses the questions in an abrupt way. The screenwriter and director could have chosen to present events in chronological order, but that would have robbed the story of its mystery and dark intrigue.

The same can be said of Memento, a neo-noir psychological thriller. Here the protagonist, who suffers from short term memory loss, can only remember events that have occurred no more than a few minutes back.

In order to solve a life threatening problem, he leaves himself clues through a series of tattoos on his back. To make matters worse, the film relates the story about-face – from end to start. The note struck by the opening scenes, therefore, is one of extreme confusion and obfuscation.

Both openings in these examples are ideally suited to their specific stories. They provide maximum audience engagement.

Summary

Determine the tone you need to strike in order to determine the precise starting point of your tale.

How to Manage Character Conflict

Boy with raised fists

Transitioning Conflict:

Staying with the work of Lagos Egri, and still on the subject of character conflict, this post examines this most powerful force that exists between characters. Egri informs us that there are four types of conflict in writing:

1. Foreshadowing (good)
2. Static (bad)
3. Jumping (bad)
4. Slowly rising (good)

Foreshadowed conflict should occur near the beginning of the story and should point to the forthcoming crisis. In Romeo and Juliet, the warring families are already such bitter enemies that they ready to kill each other from the get-go.

Static conflict remains even, spiking for only the briefest of moments and occurs only in bad writing. Arguments and quarrels create static conflict, unless the characters grow and change during these arguments. Every line of dialogue, every event must push towards the final goal.

In jumping conflict, the characters hop from one emotional level to another, eliminating the necessary transitional steps. This is also bad writing.

Avoid static and jumping conflict at all costs, by knowing, in advance, what road your characters must travel:

Fidelity to infidelity
Drunkenness to sobriety
Brazenness to timidity
Simplicity to pretentiousness

The above represent two extremes—start and destination.

Transition

You must have transitions between states. Supposing a character goes from love to hate. Let’s imagine there are seven steps between the two states:

1. Love
2. Disappointment
3. Annoyance
4. Irritation
5. Disillusionment
6. Indifference
7. Disgust
8. Anger
9. Hate

If a character goes from 1 to 5 at once, this constitutes jumping conflict, neglecting the necessary transition. In fiction, every step must be clearly shown. When your character goes through steps 1 to 9, you have slowly building conflict. Each level is more intense than the previous one, with each scene gathering momentum until the final climax.

Summary

Foreshadowed, slow-rising conflict, which transitions from level to level, is the best way to orchestrate opposition amongst your story’s characters.

Invitation

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Image: Philippe Put
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

The Syuzhet & Fabula

Road sign

Syuzhet & Fabula:

In today’s post, I want to talk about two obscure but useful terms in relation to story telling—the syzhet and the fabula.

The Syuzhet

The syuzhet is the story we encounter on the screen or page. It is the blow-by-blow account of the narrative events that comprise our tale, in the order set out by our book or film. These events may or may not make immediate sense to the audience or readers, and therein lies the fun and intrigue.

This is very much the case in Memento, for example, where the protagonist’s retrograde amnesia is mimicked by the syuzhet’s presentation of a narrative that is given in reverse order in the black and white sequences, and in normal order in the colour sequences. The effect of this on the audience is one of confusion and obfuscation, much like the confusion and obfuscation experienced by the protagonist.

The Fabula

The fabula, by contrast, is the product of an ongoing process of deconstruction and reassembly of the syuzhet during the act of viewing/reading, using accepted norms of coherence and inference so that the reordered story has a clear beginning, middle, and end—in short, a story, reordered in our minds so that it makes sense.

Without this reordering, films like Memento, Pulp Fiction, Donny Darko and Jacob’s Ladder remain confusing. Indeed, many of the films we see in the art-cinema circuit, demand such an active process of fabula construction if they are to make any sense at all.

The question now arises: Why should the syuzhet differ from the fabula? The answer is simple: Presenting events in their normal sequence, without hiding, withholding, or misdirecting information, often robs the audience of the element of surprise and may result in a predictable and boring story. Few would disagree that part of the magic of Pulp Fiction lies in its disjointed syuzhet.

The point, in relation to writers, however, is that we need to have a thorough grasp of a coherent fabula, in the sense of knowing its beginning, middle, and end, before we can begin thinking about styling it into an effective syuzhet that can manipulate, misdirect, and surprise its readers or audience. It is here that thinking about our story in terms of a fabula and syuzhet proves useful.

Summary

Thinking about your stories in terms of a fabula and syuzhet is helpful in constructing complex narratives that stay coherent while remaining intriguing and challenging to your readers and audience, at the same time.

How to Write Backstory

Whispering

Backstory

In this follow-up post we look at a very important aspect of effective storytelling—backstory. The following question immediately comes to mind:

Q: When is it useful to include backstory in your screenplay or novel?

A: When information from the past is needed in order to make sense of the present and future.

Three Principles

1. In writing backstory consider the following: Is it absolutely needed?
2. Is it economically executed?
3. Does it blend in seamlessly with the rest of the text?

Necessary Information

Include only information that is absolutely necessary to your story.

In a chilling early scene in Inglorious Basterds, for example, we learn that the SS’s Colonel Hans Landa’s mission is to find missing Jews in the French countryside whom he suspects are being protected from by French Farmers.

Economically Executed

Always try to deliver backstory in the most economical way.

In the same film, some of the backstory is revealed through Landa’s sinister, if well-mannered, speculation, interlaced with subtle threats to the dairy farmer’s family, that he suspects Perrier LaPadite of hiding a Jewish family under the floorboards of his farm house. The dialogue, therefore, does double duty: 1. It reveals the reason Landa is interrogating LaPadite—he is aware of the French dairy farmer’s sympathies for his one-time Jewish neighbours. 2. It increases our suspense because the backstory becomes an indispensable part of the interrogation with an immediate threat to the farmer and his family.

Seamless Blending

Backstory blends seamlessly into the tale when it surreptitiously manages to drive the plot forward—as in the above example—rather than halting it In order to reveal background information. Because it becomes part of the forward thrust, there is no interruption to the story’s relentless march towards the climax. Interest and tension is actively maintained.

Summary

Backstory works best when it helps, rather than impedes, the forward-thrust of the plot. The three principles mentioned above provide a useful checklist in this regard.

Asking the Right Story Questions

Question marks

Important Questions:

In his book, Screenwriting, R. G. Frensham quotes William Goldman as saying: “Movies are about story: is it well told, is it interesting? If it isn’t it doesn’t matter how talented the rest of it is.” This is also true of the novel.

So, how do you give yourself the best chance of writing an interesting, well-executed story? This post offers some suggestions:

Having chosen your story idea, you should begin to implement it by going from the general (idea) to the specific (individual characters and events). Here are a number of questions intended to help you clarify, expand, and tell your story in an effective way. Write a paragraph in answer to each one.

Nine Questions whose answers will help you write your story:

1. Why do I want to write this story?

2. Who do I think will want to watch/read it?

3. What is it about?

4. Who is it about?

5. Why is it about this character rather than that?

6. What is the importance of background or setting?

7. What is the most fitting genre for the story?

8. What is the moral of the story?

9. What is the main theme of the story?

In answering these questions you are preparing the soil for planting and harvesting. It gives you the time you need to probe your own motivation for writing the story and forces you to think about its deeper structures.

Summary

Answering a number of pertinent questions prior to writing your story helps you to explore the elements, structures, and motivations that are necessary in telling a tale that is interesting and well-executed.

How to Design Your Cast

Cast Design

Cast Design

Having a well-rounded protagonist is of little value unless you surround her with other characters to react or relate to. Indeed, your choice of characters may be one of the most crucial decisions you take in writing a story. Here, it is helpful to remember that each character performs a certain function in your tale. Knowing your story premise–the problem to be solved by the protagonist, allows you to design a cast of characters who test, resist, and assist the protagonist to achieve this goal.

Four Primary Characters

In the book Screenwriting, Raymond G. Frensham suggests that there are four primary character types to choose from:

Protagonist

The job of this character is to propel the story forward. This character’s desire to achieve the goal is a crucial aspect of the story. His decisions motivate his actions and explain why the pursuit of this goal is necessary–given the character’s background, beliefs, desires, and commitments.

Antagonist

The antagonist or nemesis is the character who most opposes the protagonist as the former attempts to pursue his goal. This character is a visible and persistent generator of conflict in the story. Without him it is difficult to muster enough energy to drive events forward.

Occasionally, ambivalent antagonists, or, anti-heroes are the protagonists of the tale, such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (Robert de Niro).

Mirror Character

A mirror character, also known as a reflection or support character is one who is most aligned with the protagonist. This character type supports the protagonist and adds colour and resonance by helping to make her more credible through dialogue and action. Without this character as foil, it is difficult to create a protagonist who can examine herself without resorting to stilted monologues or static inwardly-reflective scenes.

Romance Character

This character is the object of your protagonist’s sexual or romantic desires–the reward delivered at the end of the journey. The romance character may also, however, support or bedevil the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal–at least initially. This is because without conflict, the relationship degrades into stasis and boredom. Ultimately, however, the protagonist and his love interest end up together to live happily (or unhappily) ever after.

Rules of Thumb

In designing your cast remember the following:

Character types should be introduced by the end of act I; certainly no later than the start of act II.

Each character should stay within his or her character type for the duration of the story. Changing types midway through the story causes confusion and weakens impact.

The antagonist/protagonist conflict is the chief driver of your story.

Exploring your protagonist’s inner motivation and conflict is requisite.

Summary

Character types are a way of interrogating your story premise by exploring it from several angles–through the eyes of each character. Although opinions differ about the ideal number of such types, the four types discussed above typically define the lower limit.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

How to Determine the Theme of your Story

Just about everyone knows that every story contains a theme. Dictionary.com defines theme as a subject of discourse, discussion, meditation, or composition. Also, a unifying or dominant idea, motif, etc., as in a work of art. Ask most people what exactly it is that they mean by “theme”, however, and the answers vary in inflection and precision from “mood” to “controlling idea”. It seems that theme means different things to different people. At the very least, its use, in the colloquial sense, is imprecise.

Yet, a deep understanding of theme is essential in crafting a story that stays on track. The definition I find most useful in my own writing stems from a combination of two strands of thought drawn from the work of Lagos Egri and Stanley D. Williams: that a theme is only clinched the end of the story, and that it implies a moral premise.

Why should the theme be clinched only at the end of the story? Because that’s when the final outcome of the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is determined.

Why should that involve a moral sense, or judgment? Because the antagonist represents the negative force, or, the existence of evil in the tale, while the protagonist represents the positive force, or, the presence of good. In simple terms, if the antagonist wins, we have a down ending — evil triumphs. If the protagonist wins, we may have an up ending — good carries the day.

30 Days of Night

In the film 30 Days of Night, the isolated northern Alaskan town of Barrow is beset by a band of vampires intent on using the 30 days of darkness to gorge on the unsuspecting and helpless community. The sheriff, Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), the story’s protagonist, pits himself against Marlow (Danny Huston), the leader of the vampires, in order to help save the town, but clearly lacks the strength to defeat him. All seems lost, until Eben hatches a plan to bolster his own strength by infecting himself with tainted blood, turning himself into a vampire. Eben defeats Marlow only to expose himself purposely to sunlight and perish, ensuring that he never becomes a threat to humans.

The theme of the story is that death, through self-sacrifice, may lead to a greater, more transcendent victory by granting life to others — something that only emerges at the end of the film.

What is useful about isolating the theme in this way is that it grants one the ability to hold the essence of the story in the palm of one’s hand for scrutiny. This is crucial in keeping things on track, and for trouble-shooting potential problems.

In Summary

It is helpful to think of the theme as embodying a moral premise, which is clinched only at the end of the tale. Identifying your theme at the planing stage affords you the opportunity to see the essence of your story at glance and helps you to keep things on track.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting.